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As Wildfire Approached, Split-Second Choices Meant Life or Death


November 02, 2003
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As Wildfire Approached, Split-Second Choices Meant Life or Death

By SETH HETTENA, The Associated Press

LAKESIDE, California (AP) -- Rousted from their beds in the middle of the night, the people at the end of Muth Valley Road found themselves in a hellish landscape of embers and flames.

The choices they made in moments determined life or death.

Some ran for a reservoir. Others jumped into a swimming pool or tried to speed away on the only escape route. One family chose to wait out the fire parked in their driveway.

Four died, the most in any single spot in the most destructive wildfire in California history.

The small community of Lake View Hills Estates, with 10 homes, was one of the first places overrun early Sunday. It's now a gray and black landscape of blasted trees and shrubs stripped bare by flames.

The fire started in nearby Cleveland National Forest when a lost hunter fired off a signal flare. Driven by fierce Santa Ana desert wind, it came roaring up over the hill from Wildcat Canyon shortly after 3 a.m.

To some, the huge San Vicente Reservoir below the quiet, hillside community seemed to offer salvation. It was a quarter-mile away down a trail lined with thick brush. The Shoharas -- James, Solange and their son Randy -- tried to make their way there.

Bob Daly thought about joining them, but changed his mind. Daly, 75, and his wife jumped into the pool instead.

The rest of the neighbors began to drive out down Muth Valley Road, the only way in or out. At the security gate, Larry Redden, a retired firefighter, saw fire swallowing the road ahead and told his neighbors to turn back.

But 55-year-old Stephen Shacklett couldn't hear Redden. His motorhome, loaded with his two wolfhounds, was already rumbling down the road into the heart of the fire.

Stephen Hamilton, 43, and the others turned back. Hamilton's wife, Jodi, who was six months pregnant, thought the reservoir would be their haven. "We've got to get to the lake!" Jodi screamed.

But Stephen, a vice president of a construction company, knew the path could prove dangerous. The couple and their 2-year-old son rode out the fire parked in the driveway in their sport utility vehicle.

"It was a tornado of fire," Stephen Hamilton said, "a swirling, scorching tornado."

The worst of the firestorm lasted for about 20 minutes, he said, and then moved on, a wall of fire headed for San Diego. In Lake View Hills Estates, the way out was to stay put.

Daly and his wife stayed in their pool and then climbed out once the flames passed by. But the Shoharas never made it to the reservoir.

"They were incinerated to just skeletons," Stephen Hamilton said.

What's left of Stephen Shacklett's motor home is about a mile down the road, surrounded by yellow crime scene tape. The steel frame has twisted and melted to the ground.

"He couldn't back up. He couldn't go forward," said his son, Steve Shacklett, Jr., as he surveyed the wreckage of his father's home.

"You just wonder what goes through a guy's mind," said Stephen Shacklett's brother, Cliff. "Probably all that was on his mind was his son."

Stephen Shacklett's girlfriend, Cheryl Jennie, remained at the house.

"She had two ways to go: one was the good way, one was the bad way," said Cliff Shacklett.




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